Monday, January 28, 2013

Pay For Content Vs Pay For Service

Ferrel of Epic Slant and Chris of Game By Night have a new podcast titled MMO Radio.  The show differs from their previous efforts with the Multiverse (where they invited me to guest twice) in that they have gone with the increasingly popular shorter format and also include segments on tabletop gaming.  The new format appears to be working for them in the form of more frequent updates - in the time it took me to listen to last week's episode and type up this response, they've recorded and released a new one.  All of that plugging aside, back to last week's episode

Describing Business Models By What You Are Paying For
Chris suggests that "Buy to Play" might be more sustainable than "Free to Play", and cites LOTRO as an example.  I have far more concerns about the sustainability of "Buy to Play", and I'd hold up LOTRO as the poster child for these concerns.  To understand why, we need to take a step back and look at how these models actually work.

If you go back into the old days - EQ1, early WoW, etc - MMO's charged for two things.  You would pay one-time fees for access to content (i.e. the game box and expansions) and recurring fees for services used to access that content (i.e. the subscription time, which was mandatory).  These core parts of the business actually haven't changed all that much with all the time that has passed and all the new terms and user interfaces that have been added since.  What has changed is how the charges for content and service are presented.

In today's non-subscription market, recurring fees for use of the content do not necessarily take the form of a straight up charge for a fixed dollar amount.  When your game's cash shop requires the use of consumables to clear death penalties, improve new gear as you obtain it, travel around the world, etc, that is how you are paying for the service.  For the question Chris asks about sustainability, the important point is that this is recurring revenue that the developer will continue to receive from you for as long as you pay for the game. 

The other extreme in non-subscription games is to sell off your content - and sometimes game features - as one-time unlocks that do not require any ongoing payment as you continue using them.  One big advantage to this approach when relaunching an existing game with years of content already created is that there is a lot of stuff already in game for new players - or existing players who are dropping down to non-subscriber status - to buy.  This is roughly how I see Turbine's model today - heavily focused on one-time unlocks for content (and sometimes features) with almost nothing in the way of one-time payments for ongoing use of the service. 

So which of these two approaches is more sustainable?  Whether pay-for-content is sustainable depends heavily on how frequently you are able to produce content.  As Ferrel pointed out on the show, DDO's adventure packs are perfect for this approach because Turbine can push them out every other month year-round.  If, on the other hand, you are in the business of making large open zones that you can only finish once or twice per year, perhaps the rate of content generation is not the best thing to tie your income to long term.  In this case - which is true for most MMO's - the only way for the business to be sustainable is to somehow charge people for continuing to play the game. 

Aside: "Pay to Win"
Many players who are or were a raiders in a subscription MMO have a profoundly negative view of the free to play cash shop model, which they widely dub as "Pay to Win".  This view makes sense when you look at what it means for them personally. 

The subscription fee does not scale with how much you play the game - in fact, sometimes the developer WANTS you to play more so you will stay engaged and stay subscribed - while paying through an item shop means that you are very likely paying in proportion to how much you actually play the game.  If you are used to paying the same subscription fee as everyone else and yet having the developer spend disproportionate attention making raid content for your single digit percentile of the population, then yes, in the short term, you'd rather have it the way it was in the old days.  Whether this ultimately pushes the entire genre in directions that you do not like is more of a long term problem....


  1. Good post. I think it's more subtle than people paying in proportion to how much they play, because we know that only a small proportion of the player base generally pays much at all. Presumably there are significant numbers who play the game (possibly a lot) but without paying as much.

    It's more about milking the desire for efficiency that the hardcore have, and trying to change 'spends a lot of money in the game shop' to become one of the markers for elite player status. (Like, as well as the fancy raid gear and mount, you also get to boast about how much you spent.) That's what these devs want to change in the hardcore culture. Are they succeeding? Maybe. But those hardcore cultures are quite demanding in terms of what they expect to get for their money. It might be that the casual pet collector really is the low hanging fruit.

    That's why I'm not fond of seeing this argument tied up in the fairness or otherwise of people who play more paying more. It doesn't cover the people who spend $100 per month on lockboxes in SWTOR because they want to get a rare tchotke, or similar in GW2 with pet collectors.

  2. All the discussions over payment and funding options for MMOs miss the point as far as I'm concerned. Whether an MMO is Subscription, Buy-to-Play, Freemium, F2P or any of the myriad possibilities, very few people reading this will find themselves barred from playing because they can't afford the money asked. What denies interested parties access is Time not Money.

    Yesterday provided an excellent example. Cryptic announced their NeverWinter beta weekend schedule, along with a pre-order package. I want to play NeverWinter. The beta times are convenient for me. I can easily afford to buy the package that offers beta access and headstart, after which the game will be free to play. A game I want to play, that I can afford to pl;ay, and yet I am hesitating over whether to buy it. Why? Because I am playing GW2 and I don't have the time!

    MMOs take *ages* to play. They use up huge quantities of time and time is a finite resource. No MMO producer can give me more hours in the day to play MMOs, and even if I were retired, financially secure and had nothing better to do than play MMOs every waking hour I could not make a dent even in the small subset of them in which I am interested. And that's without new ones constantly appearing!

    So, I think this is a dead-end argument. The best thing about Subscriptions, in my opinion, is that because I can only meaningfully play at most two MMOs "seriously" at one time, they act as a self-regulating barrier to desire. I know my money would be wasted so I don't buy the games in the first place.

    All the other methods are too tempting. The reasoning goes - "it looks interesting, I probably will at least get my money's worth out of the box price/it's free to download, why not?" Then it gets bought or downloaded, played for a while and forgotten. Or rather, not forgotten. It sits there, glaring at me sullenly from my desktop, guilt-tripping me about why I'm neglecting it.

    Of course, all the jaded bittervets who can't find anything worth playing and sit around gazing wistfully back into the late 1990s don't have this problem. I wouldn't swap with them, though.

  3. As discussed in syncaine's home, there is two way of making a game profitable : short term and long term.
    As you demonstrated, for sustainability, paying for service is the best. And for short term benefits, paying once for content is the best way.
    But, my impression, is that short term player are far more numerous than long term one, and it takes at least 5 years for long term benefit to become bigger than short term benefits.

  4. Thanks for the excellent reply, Green. I see your point but I think the numbers behind it all really dictate whether F2P is any better than B2P. I recall reading a developer comment in a convention talk a couple of years ago (GDC, I think?) citing something along the lines of a 90-9-1 rule where 90% never pay anything, 9% buy small things here and there, and 1% spends a large amount of money. I can't find the quote now unfortunately, but if that is indeed true then the vast majority of players are providing no recurring revenue at all and are simply surviving with the base game, inconveniences and all. This would seem to be in line with the recent outlandish act of the Hobby Horse, but that is, of course, pure speculation.

    (If anyone recalls the quote and figure, by the way, please let me know! It was spotlighted in a number of blog posts at the time).

    B2P demands that everyone make an upfront payment while traditionally offering a cash shop for those same recurring game enhancers -- XP potions, speed buffs, mounts, etc. -- and option aesthetics. I don't necessarily believe that either model is a blanket solution for failing games because of the same points you mention; content production varies and the most appropriate option has to be determined on a game-to-game basis. That said, it seems like more and more games are aligning themselves with the likes of DDO. TSW has its Issue content, for example, and GW2 will surely follow GW1 with compelling expansions.

    What I do believe is that 100% paying *something* throughout a game's lifespan is better than a transient 90% paying nothing. Granted, the paywall may decrease the overall influx of new players but that same investment also encourages players to devote more to the game off the bat and to return down the line, thereby making them more likely follow-up spenders.

    In general, though, I think B2P just seems entirely more palatable to the expanding MMO audience as it is more in line with traditional game sales models. Enjoying a game shouldn't share an overt similarity with a utility bill, so I firmly believe the subscription model will increase in its niche status. Whether any of the available options are what the market settles with is yet to be seen, but the evolution will surely be interesting to observe.

  5. Also, guesting. You should do it again :-)


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